George W Bush has announced that Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, is to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honour that can be bestowed upon a civilian.
The medal, established in 1963, is awarded for an “especially meritorious contribution” to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, or for their accomplishments in the areas of culture or “other significant public or private endeavours.”
Lee won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for the novel, which is credited with helping to focus the country at the height of the civil-rights movement by raising awareness of the injustices of discrimination.
It tells the story of a small-town Alabama lawyer, Atticus Finch, who defends a black man accused of raping a local white woman. The narrator of the story is six-year-old Scout, the daughter of Atticus.
Although downplaying the idea that To Kill A Mockingbird is semi-autobiographical, it bears a striking resemblance to her early life. She was born in Monroeville, a small town in Alabama, and her father was also a lawyer.
In 1931, when Lee was six, nine young black men in Scottsboro, Alabama, were accused of raping two white women, and, despite the lack of any evidence, the men were convicted by an all-white jury.
Her childhood friend was Truman Capote, who would go on to write In Cold Blood, and he is thought to be the inspiration for the character of Scout’s friend Dill in the novel.
Lee was quoted in Newquist in 1964 as saying “I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement.”
Other recipients of this year’s Presidential Medal of Freedom are:
Oscar Elias Biscet: Cuban anti-abortion and pro-democracy activist
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: President of Liberia
Gary Becker: Nobel Prize-winning economist
Francis Collins: Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute
Benjamin Hooks: Civil rights leader
Henry Hyde: former House Foreign Affairs committee chairman
Brian Lamb: Visionary television executive